Portraits Of Ebola Survivors Bring Their Stories To Life

The photographer said he wanted to focus on survivors' sense of empowerment.

01/11/2016 03:30 pm ET | Updated Jan 11, 2016
Daniel Jack Lyons
Photographer Daniel Jack Lyons traveled to West Africa in 2015 to document what life was like as an Ebola survivor. Hawa Singbeh, an survivor in Gbolakai-Ta, Liberia, was given a camera to take photos that described her experience during the disease's outbreak.

In the middle of the devastating Ebola outbreak last year, one photographer set out to Sierra Leone and Liberia to help the disease's survivors tell their stories.

New York-based photographer and human rights researcher Daniel Jack Lyons traveled to the villages of Gbolakai-Ta, Liberia, and Rosanda, Sierra Leone, in the summer of 2015 on commission for the International Medical Corps. His goal was to document the impact of the virus in those two communities.

In addition to taking his own photographs, Lyon gave villagers cameras so they, too, could share their stories about fighting Ebola.

The World Health Organization officially declared Liberia Ebola-free in September and Sierra Leone Ebola-free in November. The outbreak, which began in March 2014, killed at least 11,300 people, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention reported.

The WorldPost spoke with Lyons about his experience photographing and researching in the two communities.

Daniel Jack Lyons
Ebola survivors Adam and Lamin stand in front of their home in Rosanda, where 16 people died from Ebola.

Why is it so important for Ebola survivors to take their own photographs to tell their story?

I work as a qualitative human rights researcher as well as a photographer. Any time there's a public health disparity or human rights abuse, I get sent somewhere to collect anecdotal data through interviews and focus groups. In the last few years, I've been specializing in a methodology called photovoice, a research method that entails giving people cameras to answer questions. I begin the process by holding discussions with subjects, in which they come up with framing questions that they go out and answer by taking photos. 

Photovoice works well for me as a photographer. Whenever I'm in an area, like a small community, gaining trust and access is usually any photographer's biggest struggle. For me, to do a portrait of somebody, it's important to establish a very intimate connection with them before I take out my camera. Conducting this methodology has been a really great way of getting accepted into a community, gaining access for my own photographic desires as well.

It's about creating agency for communities who previously didn't have very much agency to tell their own story.

Wherever I am, it's really important that the people experiencing an issue -- like Ebola in this case -- are the ones telling their own story, and not somebody else who comes and observes and leaves. In a way, it's about creating agency for communities who previously didn't have very much agency to tell their own story.

Daniel Jack Lyons
Women pray for the many individuals who never came back from the bush, where they were sent with a bucket of homemade medicine and told to return when they were healed from the virus.

What were some of the questions that photovoice participants asked?

Ebola looked very different in Liberia than it did in Sierra Leone, and consequently the questions that they came up with in Sierra Leone were very different from questions that they came up with in Liberia. 

When I was in Sierra Leone, there were still new positive Ebola cases coming up. The survivors' main focus was to get their story out to other communities, so that they could help spread the message of prevention. It was especially important because a lot of communities were very distrusting of the Western doctors that were there and setting up Ebola treatment centers. A lot of people didn't go to the center, and that's how whole communities were completely devastated.

So, the first question that the survivors in Sierra Leone asked themselves was, "How did I survive Ebola?" 

Then I went to Liberia, where the disease was much more under control than it was in Sierra Leone. But the emergency response rate in Liberia was much slower, and there were communities that were almost quarantined, with nobody coming in and out. People didn't know who to trust and didn't know what to do. Many took it upon themselves to come up with their own methods of preventing, which often entailed giving someone a bucket of homemade medicine, sending them out into the bush, and telling them not to come back until they were better. A lot of people walked out to the bush and never came back. Liberians' questions were about what it means to be a survivor.

John B. Sackie
"This is the bark used by traditional healers in our community to treat Ebola. The process is to wash it until it is very clean and let it soak in cold water for some hours. Once the liquid has been extracted, it's given to the sick people," John B. Sackie, an Ebola survivor from Gbolakai-Ta, told Lyons. "This treatment cured many people in our community."

What was the experience like for the Ebola survivors involved in the project?

It was definitely a positive experience, and different in Sierra Leone than it was in Liberia. In Sierra Leone, people appreciated being included in the prevention process. Up until that point, international organizations would come into these small communities and say, "Listen, you have this thing called Ebola, here's how to prevent it," and put up posters and do outreach. But people didn't really feel included in part of the process. They were just being told, "You need to wash your hands, you have to do this and that."

Incorporating survivors into the process of creating prevention messaging, they were really grateful for it. It was empowering to survivors, many of whom were young teenagers. It gave them a sense of a new role in their communities. It gave them an empowered sense of responsibility in their community to show their photos and talk about their photos in a way that spreads Ebola prevention messaging. 

Hellen Scott
"I sell donuts to make a living. You can see them in the bucket here," Hellen Scott, a resident of Gbolakai-Ta, told Lyons. "During the Ebola crisis and for a long time afterward, no one would buy donuts from me. This was very difficult for me financially. But after a while, people in my community began buying donuts again. It was a sign that the stigma and the fear was passing."

In Liberia, they kept thanking me, saying, "Nobody's ever asked us our stories." I think that was a huge component in Liberia because they were advocating to be considered survivors in the same way that people who went to treatment centers are considered survivors. Nobody has really ever stopped and asked, "What happened in your community? Do tell me." To have an opportunity to tell their story was something that was really important to them.

The response rate, in both countries, whenever you have any kind of international emergency response, people cycle in and cycle out. There's a lot of people that come in, they're on a one-month contract or sometimes even shorter than that, and a lot of them are volunteers. It's hard for people who are living there to just see a lot of people coming and going. Very often nobody takes the time and asks somebody what their experience was like.

They kept thanking me, saying, "Nobody's ever asked us our stories."

What were some striking moments during the project? 

I was constantly reminded and astounded by the resilience of people in both places. There's so much social innovation in those communities, as well as a sense of community. Nobody abandoned one another. Even in dire situations, people were helping their neighbors the best way they could, helping each other even when the protocol said "don't touch anyone." I heard so many stories that just demonstrated a level of resilience that I had never considered or experienced before. It was something that struck me multiple times.

Daniel Jack Lyons
Hawa, a girl from Gbolakai-Ta who survived Ebola, asked to be photographed in the room in which she was born and almost died.

Are there any particular photos that hold special significance to you?

There's a picture of a girl with white paint on her face and she's standing in a painted room in Gbolakai-Ta, Liberia. This little girl walked up to me and said, "We're tearing down our house today. Would you take my photo inside my house before we leave the home?"

Her brothers, sisters and parents lived in this one-bedroom house. She said she had gotten Ebola and was sent out into the bush. Her brother and her sister didn't make it, but she did. She came back from the bush, was reunited with her mom and dad, and they were moving to a much bigger house where somebody else had died.

She said: "This was the room I was born into. When I left it, I never thought I would ever see this room again. This was the room I almost died in. This is very significant for me to be photographed here before we move."

When I look at that photo, I always remember that moment.

Daniel Jack Lyons
Esther and Kadiatu guard the border to their village of Rosanda, Sierra Leone.

There's one other photo too that I really like. During Ebola, part of the protocol for any community that had a bunch of cases was to quarantine the community. The protocol did not allow anyone who was a non-resident to come into the community. For many little villages in the middle of a jungle, people could enter from multiple pathways -- it's not like there are walls around a city.

There's this one picture of these two women from Sierra Leone, and they're standing at one of the entrances to their village. You wouldn't even know it was a footpath -- it was in the jungle, banana trees everywhere -- and they're just standing there. It's just such a surreal thing to see these women who were so powerful. Nobody would mess with them.

What do you think gets missed when the media talks about Ebola survivors?

I think in a lot of the reports that I've read, the narrative is about victimhood and it's really about people who are victims of Ebola. Part of what I like to highlight in my own photography, whether I'm doing it with Ebola survivors or Fukushima survivors, is to focus on a sense of empowerment. When I photograph people, I like to bring that out as well. In fact, a lot of my work, being that it's human-rights related, focuses on survivors.

For every sad story, there could be an equally empowering story of someone who went to great lengths to protect their family, themselves or their community.

The flipped meaning of survivor could be victim, but I think the media that I saw lacked the perseverance and the resilience of people that were overcoming a huge, huge obstacle -- a deadly virus. For every sad story, there could be an equally empowering story of someone who went to great lengths to protect their family, themselves or their community.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


See more photos of Ebola survivors and their stories below.

  • Daniel Jack Lyons
    "When someone living in her compound in Rosanda died from Ebola, Eisha took her children to a farm 10 kilometers (6 miles) away, where they camped for three months until the epidemic was under control in the village," Lyons wrote.
  • Daniel Jack Lyons
    This village elder was a leader in the time of the crisis, advocating for people to seek treatment the moment they showed any symptoms of Ebola.
  • Daniel Jack Lyons
    Elvis B. Mokholo was the only one out of his five siblings to survive from Ebola.
  • Daniel Jack Lyons
    This well in Rosanda was donated and installed during the height of the crisis to encourage villagers to was their hands. It was the village's first well.
  • Daniel Jack Lyons
    "During the height of the epidemic, people were not allowed to congregate due to the highly contagious nature of the disease," Lyons wrote. "This photo was the first wedding to be held in over seven months in the district of Makeni, Sierra Leone."
  • Daniel Jack Lyons
    The Ebola cemetery in the district of Makeni, Sierra Leone, has more than 600 graves.
  • Hawa Singbeh
    "Before the crisis, we used to all eat together. Children from neighboring houses would come together to help prepare a large amount of food that we would then eat together as a community. Since the crisis, people are not doing this as much as they used to. There is still a lot of division within our community since the Ebola crisis," Hawa Singbeh, from Gbolakai-Ta, said. "That's why I prepared a large meal for us to eat together, to demonstrate that we can return to our normal customs and eat together again. This is another way we can overcome stigma in our community."
  • Daniel Jack Lyons
    Sister survivors in Rosanda, Sierra Leone.

More on the Ebola crisis:

Suggest a correction